PAWTUCKET — A dozen or so angry business owners with property located in the construction and detour zone around the Pawtucket I-95 bridge replacement project vented their frustrations at a March 14 meeting with state and local officials at City Hall.
While not much was actually promised, city officials said they would be putting up new signage around the detours giving motorists more detailed directions to many of the primary businesses located in the affected areas. City and state officials also said they would work together to investigate any options that are available to provide relief to business owners through low-interest loans or other financing measures.
This was a repeat performance for some of the business owners, including Nick Fernandes, with an office building at 155 Pleasant Street, and Fred Villeneuve, the longtime proprietor of Ferdie's Key Shop at 234 East Avenue. The two, along with several others, have appeared previously at City Council meetings to complain to city officials and representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) about the fact that the street closings, detours and confusing array of barrels have been driving away customers and costing them money.
Villeneuve said he has experienced a 40 percent drop in business since the detours went into effect around the Division Street bridge and East Avenue. He told city and stat officials that his employees had to take a 50 percent pay cut to offset this loss, and expressed concerns that his his third generation family business, at that location for the past 50 years, won't be around for the fourth generation.
Villeneuve asked if some type of loan program could be made available for business owners such as himself who need to get by until the long-range bridge construction problem is completed.
Fernandes echoed this problem, saying the tenants in his professional building have all experienced a drop in business due to the difficulty of getting to and from the area. He criticized RIDOT for not having a better plan to help the businesses when state officials had a solid 8-month delay before the actual start of construction.
Another local property owner, Andrew Spingarn, complained that he had been planning to open up an art gallery in his shop, Pawtucket Picture Frame, located in a building he owns on Pleasant Street, but worries that the detours will keep people away.
RIDOT Deputy Chief Frank Corrao listened to the complaints and attempted to address some of the concerns. He was accompanied by RIDOT Engineer Jim Primeau, who is working on the bridge project. As one element of light at the end of the tunnel, Corrao told those present that RIDOT hopes to be able to complete the roadwork around the Grace Street and Division Street intersection by the end of April, so that section of Grace Street will be opened up to motorists.
However, the RIDOT officials conceded that there is still a lot of work to be done related to the bridge replacement project and the area around Taft Street and Pleasant Street will have to remain closed for approximately two and a half years.
Barney Heath, the city's acting Director of Planning and Redevelopment and Michael Burns, the city's engineering supervisor, were also in attendance, along with Mayor Donald Grebien, and City Councilors David Moran, John Barry III and Albert Vitali Jr., and several local legislators, including state Rep. Mary Duffy Messier, Sen. Edward O'Neill, Rep. Roberto DaSilva and Rep. Raymond Johnston.
Heath said that the city is working with the state to create signs that city DPW workers will put up to help direct motorists to the businesses that are most directly affected by the detours. The signs, some of which are already in place, will be erected on East Avenue, Taft Street, Pleasant Street and Pawtucket Avenue.
The $81 million bridge replacement project will replace the two spans of the Pawtucket River Bridge that carries I-95 over the Seekonk River. The project is scheduled for completion in the summer of 2013. However, RIDOT has said that enough construction should be completed so the I-95 traffic can be shifted onto the new structures and eliminate the bridge's 18-ton weight limit.